Coral Reefs

Page 30

The breaches in the reef are seldom as deep as the interior lagoon-like channel; they generally occur in front of the main valleys, a circumstance which can be accounted for, as will be seen in the fourth chapter, without much difficulty. The breaches being situated in front of the valleys, which descend indifferently on all sides, explains their more frequent occurrence through the windward side of barrier-reefs than through the windward side of atolls,--for in atolls there is no included land to influence the position of the breaches.

It is remarkable, that the lagoon-channels round mountainous islands have not in every instance been long ago filled up with coral and sediment; but it is more easily accounted for than appears at first sight. In cases like that of Hogoleu and the Gambier Islands, where a few small peaks rise out of a great lagoon, the conditions scarcely differ from those of an atoll, and I have already shown, at some length, that the filling up of a true lagoon must be an extremely slow process. Where the channel is narrow, the agency, which on unprotected coasts is most productive of sediment, namely the force of the breakers, is here entirely excluded, and the reef being breached in the front of the main valleys, much of the finer mud from the rivers must be transported into the open sea. As a current is formed by the water thrown over the edge of atoll-formed reefs, which carries sediment with it through the deep-water breaches, the same thing probably takes place in barrier-reefs, and this would greatly aid in preventing the lagoon-channel from being filled up. The low alluvial border, however, at the foot of the encircled mountains, shows that the work of filling up is in progress; and at Maura (Plate I., Figure 6), in the Society group, it has been almost effected, so that there remains only one harbour for small craft.

If we look at a set of charts of barrier-reefs, and leave out in imagination the encircled land, we shall find that, besides the many points already noticed of resemblance, or rather of identity in structure with atolls, there is a close general agreement in form, average dimensions, and grouping. Encircling barrier-reefs, like atolls, are generally elongated, with an irregularly rounded, though sometimes angular outline. There are atolls of all sizes, from less than two miles in diameter to sixty miles (excluding Tilla-dou-Matte, as it consists of a number of almost independent atoll-formed reefs); and there are encircling barrier-reefs from three miles and a half to forty-six miles in diameter,--Turtle Island being an instance of the former, and Hogoleu of the latter. At Tahiti the encircled island is thirty-six miles in its longest axis, whilst at Maurua it is only a little more than two miles. It will be shown, in the last chapter in this volume, that there is the strictest resemblance in the grouping of atolls and of common islands, and consequently there must be the same resemblance in the grouping of atolls and of encircling barrier-reefs.

The islands lying within reefs of this class, are of very various heights. Tahiti is 7,000 feet (The height of Tahiti is given from Captain Beechey; Maurua from Mr. F.D. Bennett ("Geograph. Journ." volume viii., page 220); Aitutaki from measurements made on board the "Beagle"; and Manouai or Harvey Island, from an estimate by the Rev. J. Williams. The two latter islands, however, are not in some respects well characterised examples of the encircled class.); Maurua about 800; Aitutaki 360, and Manouai only 50. The geological nature of the included land varies: in most cases it is of ancient volcanic origin, owing apparently to the fact that islands of this nature are most frequent within all great seas; some, however, are of madreporitic limestone, and others of primary formation, of which latter kind New Caledonia offers the best example. The central land consists either of one island, or of several: thus, in the Society group, Eimeo stands by itself; while Taha and Raiatea (Figure 3, Plate I.), both moderately large islands of nearly equal size, are included in one reef. Within the reef of the Gambier group there are four large and some smaller islands (Figure 8, Plate I.); within that of Hogoleu (Figure 2, Plate I.) nearly a dozen small islands are scattered over the expanse of one vast lagoon.

Charles Darwin

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